Home > Uncategorized > How the mind (doesn’t) work

How the mind (doesn’t) work

January 1, 2011
Multi-angle bench vise

The invisible vise

I have a nifty multi-angle bench vise, which I’d misplaced and was looking everywhere for it. I normally keep it on my inside workbench where I do fiddly stuff. Had I packed it in a utility box? Left it on the workbench in the garage? Loaned it to someone and forgotten? Over a period of weeks I looked for it intermittently, but no success. Finally I decided that I’d somehow lost the damn thing and went to order a new one on Amazon.com  It was really pissing me off because after twenty years or so, the vise still worked perfectly.

Amazon had several models available, including the identical model which I really liked, so I clicked “Add To Cart”, only to learn it wasn’t eligible for Free Shipping.  What, $17 shipping on a $26 item?  That’s crazy!  I clicked; “Cancel Order” and…

You guessed it: later that day I walked out to the garage and there it was in plain sight on the workbench.

The garage workbench also has a heavy-duty vise bolted to it but I occasionally take the multi-angle vise out to solder something or repair a bicycle part.  The mystery was that I’d looked at that bench very carefully to try and find the vise.  A shiny metal object with which I was very familiar, yet I couldn’t see it when looking right at it. How is that possible?

Well it’s pretty common, actually.  Vision takes place in the eye, but seeing happens in the brain and for whatever reason my brain just wasn’t seeing.  This phenomenon is very important to people who design system interfaces, or advertisements, or road signs,  or by extension all the rest of us too.

Those of us in computer support are all too familiar with the brain-no-see-um thing.  You’re on the phone with someone and telling them; “Click on the View menu” and they’ll say; “There’s File and Edit and This and That but there’s no View menu” and you go up to their office and there’s the View menu, right next to Edit – which they described to you over the phone.   And the user, often someone with a PhD in something like Quantum Smartness Thermodynamics, says; “Oh, I am so dumb!”  And you reassure them that it’s the interface, and not them, that is dumb.  There’s only so many thingies you can put on a screen before they start to jumble up, which is why I do most of my writing in a plain-text editor in full-screen mode.

I’m going to start calling this the “Big Red Button” phenomenon, after this post by TNW Entrepreneur; Compared To You, Most People Seem Dumb.  The author describes four incidents in which users didn’t see what was (to him) very apparent or super-easy to figure out.  In the Red Button example, he made a birthday calendar website and people couldn’t figure out how to add a birthday.  Despite the big red button at the top of the screen that said, in huge type; “Add A Birthday”.    My thought was that the button in question was big and bright enough to trigger the cluster of neurons in users’ brains that says; “This is an ad, you should ignore it so you don’t get off-task.”  Once he made the primary function big and bright enough, it became invisible.

There is an arms race between interface designers and users’ brains too: attention-getting techniques lose effectiveness quickly once they are adopted to draw people away from their primary objective to something else.  Our brains have lots of little cognitive defense subroutines like that, and awareness is a matter of hacking them like any other system.


  • “Thingies on the screen” are what software advertisers call “Features”.   If you make software with a lot of features, it’s a challenge to figure out how to present them to real users.  A related problem is when somebody in Marketing decides that the screen needs various kinds of pretty decoration, which bleeds off cognitive focus from the task at hand.
  • Designer Don Norman says; “Signs don’t work”.  When people want to go through a door, for example, they are simply not looking for a rectangle containing textual information on how to operate the door, or if they should use the other door in preference to the one they are approaching.  He also says that if five percent of users make a certain mistake using a system, maybe they’re dumb; but if seventy percent make that mistake, it’s the system that is dumb.  Or more correctly, the system designer.
  • The Big Red Button is visually differentiated from the task flow so it didn’t look like part of it.  The value of a consistent User Interface is that the user need not hack every task.  A Button That Does A Thing has a certain look to it, and the cognitively parsimonious user looks first for a Thing-Doing Button, not a big red thing.  Unless that’s your consistent Thing Doing Button design, repeated throughout the UI.  Edward Tufte calls this “The power of small multiples”.
  • NeuroNarrative interview with Psychologist Daniel Simons on the Invisible Gorilla Study: “The intuition that we would notice makes it jarring for people to realize that they didn’t.”
Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Ray M
    January 1, 2011 at 16:50 | #1

    Thank you, thank you, thank you… all these years I’ve thought it was only I who had this problem! :-) (Not really, although it does always surprise me when it happens – my wife assures me it’s a “man thing”)

    Happy New Year, George.

  2. January 1, 2011 at 21:11 | #2

    Excellent! This is one of the most comforting posts you’ve written yet! I’d say also most informative, but you’re always most informative. ;-)

    This reminded me of the day I spent half an hour looking in the drawer for a screwdriver for my dad. Tore that thing apart. So he walks in for a beer, plucks the screwdriver off the top where it had been sitting in plain sight, and leaves me simmering while he smirks.

    Pick up one of the new “smart” phones and you’ll see the Big Red Button problem in spades. 90% of the time I spend troubleshooting is trying to explain how to see the next menu item, which is hiding amongst all the other sniny menu items. Argh. 5% of my time is explaining that they’re really not stupid. I think I’ll have to just email them this post from now on!

  3. January 1, 2011 at 21:54 | #3

    Another thing that makes it harder to find things is if you don’t expect they can be found. There are days when King Kong and Godzilla were doing the happy dance right in front of me, and I wouldn’t see them because I just didn’t think it was possible.

    Good essay, and yes, software writers deal with this all the time.

    • January 3, 2011 at 01:59 | #4

      Ahem, that should say “when King Kong and Godzilla could be doing the happy dance”. The way it was written, you’d think this had actually happened. Unfortunately, I was saying that even if it had happened, I wouldn’t have know, which begs the question how I could have known if it had.

      • dof
        January 3, 2011 at 02:05 | #5

        That’s all right, I always took KongZilla scripture as metaphorical anyway.

Comments are closed.